Back off, Merkel! EU rift as Conte warns German leader

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But Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte lashed out at Mrs Merkel sending a loud-and-clear “I’m in charge of Italy” message to the German leader. Private aides to Mr Conte have suggested using the EU’s assistance programmes would signal to Italy and wider financial markets that Mr Conte had lost control of the national purse strings.

The ESM was established in 2012 and provides instant access to assistance programmes for member states struggling with financial difficulty. 

The scheme has been criticised for being a short-term political fix and not an institutional solution.

Despite the economic crisis due to the outbreak of coronavirus, no euro government has shown any interest in ESM aid.

Speaking to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung Mrs Merkel said the EU had not set up instruments such as the ESM so that they remain unused.

Ms Merkel said: “It is an instrument that can be used by everyone.

“We did not activate it to remain unused.”

But Mr Conte said: “I’m the one who keeps the books.

“I take care of the Italian budget, together with Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri, the state’s accountants and the other ministers.”

Matteo Salvini, former deputy prime minister, echoed Mr Conte’s comments and said: “Merkel should concentrate on Germany, we think about Italy ourselves.”

Despite having access to the ESM scheme, Italy fears a request for help during the economic crisis will be interpreted as a signal of massive financial difficulties.

Italy was one of the worst hit countries during the outbreak of COVID-19 with more than 34,000 people dying due to the deadly virus.

The coronavirus crisis put the weakening EU under strain and fury erupted in Italy over the way it was abandoned by its European partners during the pandemic.

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Earlier this month, European Commission president Ursula von Der Leyen demanded Italy tackles overdue reforms after receiving millions from the European Reconstruction Fund.

Ms von der Leyen announced the EU would not borrow money from their children to spend more today.

She said: “We, the EU, are borrowing money from our children for the first time.

“So today’s investments must bear fruit for our children.

“We will not simply borrow money from our children just to spend more today, as our Member States sometimes did.”

Concerns that Italy would follow the UK and leave the EU have been heightened over recent weeks.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage previously claimed Italy would be the next country to leave the EU.

In an interview with affaritaliani.it, Mr Farage said: “After the COVID-19 emergency, western countries’ politics are going through a phase of profound instability.

“What is certain is that any aid measure from Brussels to solve the Italian economic crisis will not bring stability.

“I don’t know when exactly, I don’t know at what point, certainly not tonight, but in the end, Italy will leave the European Union as we did.

“It might take years, but it will happen.”

Although Mr Farage was adamant Italy would leave the EU, he believed it would not be Mr Conte to lead them out.

Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg and Maria Ortega

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